In 2013, I met with a group of other low vision professionals from all around the US, to hear about a new wearable assistive technology out of Israel called OrCam. While at this meeting, some individuals were skeptical, as the device did not meet the expectations of their concept video. However, I definitely saw its potential and with amount of time, effort and a significant number of engineers working on one device, I knew this was something I wanted to be involved with. Four years later I still feel the same.
So What is OrCam?
OrCam is a wearable smart camera, which utilizes computer vision to assist people who are blind or visually impaired. The device does not enhance someone’s vision; rather it speaks the information to the person through a speaker next to their ear. It is a multifunctional device, which is able to read text by optical character recognition, recognize memorized products and has facial recognition. Other capabilities are bar-code reading (currently beta-version), automatic page recognition, and color and money recognition.
The device is comprised of a head unit and a base unit. The head unit has an 8-megapixel camera with a speaker that can attach to most eyeglass frames except those that have too much of a wrap around or those frames where the temple wire is too delicate or thin. The head unit is attached by a wire to the base unit (about the size of an eyeglass case), which has three buttons, contains a rechargeable battery and the computer components. Battery life lasts about 4 hours if used continuously and 24 hours used intermittently through the day and currently does not connect with the Internet.
How Does OrCam Work?
The OrCam camera recognizes a pointing gesture where it sees the finger extended upwards (with the nail facing toward you) which will trigger the camera to take a picture. If someone is unable to point, the camera can be activated by pressing a trigger button or by tapping on the base unit. The device can also be set to automatic where it will automatically recognize text, faces, bar codes and money. Other gestures besides pointing are a stop gesture to stop reading and a tell-time gesture.
Who is OrCam For?
Users of OrCam have ranged in age from 7 to 101 years old with an average age of 67.5 years old. The OrCam device can be used by low vision or blind patients, however I find that blind patients must already have good orientation skills to begin with. Out of 55 trainings I have completed, most were visually impaired (71%) with the most common diagnosis being Macula Degeneration. Patients who were blind or only light perception made up 29% with varied diagnoses. What I find useful is that OrCam can still be used by a patient of any type of vision loss and is still useful even if vision gets worse with time.
Who is OrCam Not For?
OrCam is not recommended for someone who is deaf (but can be used in with a hearing aid), a patient with a head tremor (as the camera needs to take a still picture), a small child (as the head unit may not fit the child properly) and as with most technology those with poor cognitive ability.
Independent studies have shown an improved quality of life in patients who were legally blind from end stage glaucoma (1) and OrCam use was shown to have implications in increasing functionality in daily living activities, which may lead to greater independence (2). Further studies are being done including combined use with other technologies.
Training someone on OrCam takes about 2 – 2 ½ hours and can be done in office. It also comes in two versions. The OrCam MyEye that has all the functions mentioned above and the OrCam MyReader, which has OCR reading capabilities alone. The MyReader may be best for elderly patients who only want to read and also may be useful for those with brain injury or other reading disabilities.
I have worked with many patients on OrCam and find it’s a very practical tool that can be used daily. I have seen elderly patients cry that they can read again and have witnessed those blind from birth laugh that they are holding a book and read increasing their accessibility. I also have experienced those who have not done so well and thankful that the company offers a return policy of 30 days.
We live in a great time where technology is growing and currently able to assist our patients who have vision loss. Just as with any technology a good assessment and demonstration of all devices are needed to find the right tool for the patient’s abilities and goals.
Dr. Wolynski is a consultant for OrCam.